Monday 31 December 2012

Postcard from Cove Park

Back in 1995, after we'd made our first show, Testcard, Rachael and I went to Bakewell for the day. We'd been asked to apply for a few commissions, and were getting asked things like "Where do you see the company in five years' time?" by potential funders.

We realised that there was more work to make together, and that we needed to think a bit more about what this collaboration - or company - might be, beyond that first show. We spent the day walking, talking, drinking coffee and eating Bakewell pudding. We set ourselves a five year plan, which we went on to stick to and achieve nearly all of.

In the years that followed, "Doing a Bakewell" became Third Angel shorthand for going and having one of those future planning days. Or, more recently, half-days; there never seemed the time for such long discussions.

That changed this year. The reason it's been quieter on this blog for the last six months is because of the Organisational Development project we've been running. We've been having conversations and making plans: really useful and challenging conversations with consultant/advisors Joanna Ridout and (our board-member) Kamal Birdi, plus a generous group of producers and artists who have given us their time, experience and wisdom for free: thank you Artsadmin, Jo Hammett, Ric Watts, DepArts, Natalie Querol, Sheffield Theatres, Stan's Cafe, Forced Entertainment, Peter Reed, Gary Hills and others we are still to schedule chats with (and others I have no doubt temporarily forgotten). We've got a "fridge door" full of thoughts, realisations and ideas to explore further, along with a new company structure to implement. Fruits of the business developments born of this process will fall into place over the first half of next year.

But without doubt the most significant part of the process was the week Rachael and I spent at Cove Park in September, supported by Fuel Theatre and Cove Park themselves (big thanks to both organisations).

It is a wonderful, inspirational place - just remote enough to give you the isolation from the day-to-day pressures of running a company. There's a communal space with a huge table, library, wifi and computers. The accommodation has no wifi, and no phone signal, but room to talk. And space, amazing views and lots of weather - weather you can see approaching down Loch Long.

At some point that week Rachael said to me something that I've been repeating to people ever since. The value in it was the time it gave us to have "the conversations that are too big for a meeting" - that can't be fitted in to two or three hours, or even a whole day; conversations that can't be restricted by having to make room for other things on the agenda. Conversations that, therefore, get put off.

This space enabled us to have a three- or four- stranded conversation over the five days, pausing one strand to pursue another when needed, recognising that we couldn't always make a decision until something else was discussed. So we got to have, seventeen years down the line, as fundamental a conversation as we had in Bakewell. The decisions we made probably won't seem massive from the outside; nor will they produce a Radical New Direction. But they have clarified things for us, inspired us and given us a renewed energy.

We immediately scheduled another, equally useful, company away day with General Manager Hilary, and put plans in place for this to be a fixture in our annual planning. Get out of the office and walk and talk. For whole days at a time.

It's been a really good year for Third Angel. The tour of What I Heard About the World / Story Map went brilliantly, working at Northern Stage at St. Stephen's was fantastic, The Machine was something quite different for us, and this was all complemented by a series of other repertoire shows and new video work. Education and mentoring projects were rewarding, successful and great fun. We've pretty much made the next show Cape Wrath and have exciting plans in place for the two shows after that... To have the view from Cove Park in addition to all of that makes it feel like 2012 has been a very important year for us.

A massive thank you to all of the other collaborators, supporters, partners, friends and of course audiences who have been part of the last twelve months with us. Happy New Year - we wish you a brave and rewarding 2013.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Character Drama & Happy Accidents

The Machine photographed at GIFT by Richard Kenworthy.

We're about to go into the Crucible Studio for tech set up and rehearsal for The Machine, which we last performed back in May at GIFT. That was only the second time we'd performed it, and so we're still at the stage, in the life of the piece, where we're learning a lot about it each time we present it in a room with an audience.

What became really apparent to us in rehearsing and performing in Gateshead was how much character there is in the System Control and Processor figures. As I've discussed on here before, Perec's text doesn't look like a play-script, more like a diagram or flowchart.

The more we get to know its intricacies, the more we can feel the different personalities of the three Processors. This is in no doubt in part due to the fact that Teresa, Oliver and I are different performers ourselves, and that as audiences we like to find character and narrative in even the most abstract or minimalist material. But after two stagings of the piece we can also see how, despite being computer programmes, Perec gives them different attitudes to the tasks that the System Control presents them with. Indeed, this is where much of the humour in the show comes from.

We've always enjoyed the way even System Control loses her objectivity as the show unfolds, and we begin to get a sense of her personality and desires beneath the rules and instructions. There is a notable moment in the latter half of the show when she abandons being the instructor, and joins in the games she is instigating.

Chris Hall, who originated the project for Third Angel, mentioned this recently to Ulrich Schönherr, the translator, who explained that actually, this unusual action by the System Control is in fact a formatting error. In the reworking of Ulrich's text for publication, something slipped in the typesetting phase, and the dialogue on that particular page falls into the wrong column - is therefore allocated to the wrong voice. He sent Chris a pdf with the original formatting for him to see how it differs. Chris observed that we would revert to this, unpublished version to be closer to Perec's orignal intention.

But no. Ulrich assured Chris that we didn't need to do that: we should take the published version as the definitive version of the script, he explained, even though it isn't what Perec originally wrote. Given the games that Perec plays with Goethe's poetry in the show, this reformatting of the content of the script feels to me like an entirely, appropriately, Perecian piece of constructed serendipity. In fact, Ulrich has also pointed out to us that there is no definitive version of the text, because he wasn't aways working from Perec's original text. He was often working from his own transcript of the original German radio broadcast. And again, the Chinese-whispers nature of the translation process echoes the deconstructions that The Machine itself employs. Or is employed to perform. I know that Chris and Rob Barker are keen to explore a bit further when Rob chairs our post-show discussion event on Tuesday (an Off The Shelf Festival event). 

We've been asked by a couple of people about the fact that we're "doing a text" with this piece, and about how typical, or not, it is of what we do.  The short answer to the latter question is that I suppose it is typically atypical. It is deliberately different to what else we're currently doing.  

Thinking about the staging of a radio play, and what we're bringing to it visually - given that it is designed to work only as words and sounds that you hear. We understand now that what we do is create the space - the Machine itself, perhaps, as some viewers have read it - and bring the audience in to that space with us. The first thing we've actually done is strip away all the visual noise that you can get when actually listening to a play on the radio - the road, the traffic, the kitchen, the street, whatever else you're doing - and invite the audience to really enjoy concentrating on the text. 

And of course, as we're discovering each time we perform it, we bring more of the characters. We're able, by physically putting them in front of the audience, to play with the ambiguity of the person-alities of the computer processors. 

The Crucible is, of course, our new company home, and its Studio is the first already-in-the-round space we've taken the piece into, so we know we can do more with sound, too. I realised, driving home to Sheffield this afternoon, that I'm really looking forward to hearing and seeing it again.